Kickstarter Etiquette: Five Rules Every Fund-raising Filmmaker Needs to Learn

Zach Braff, Kickstarter misstepper (though a successful one) Photo: Con Tanasiuk/Corbis,,Con Tanasiuk/? Corbis. All Rights Reserved.

“Will Crowdfunding Transform Showbiz?” asks a new Variety feature, touting Zach Braff — who recently raised over $3 million for his new directorial effort Wish I Was Here — as its savvy cover subject. It’s one of those Big Questions that already seems to have been answered: Successful Kickstarter projects like Braff’s new movie and the big-screen Veronica Mars transfer have turned Hollywood’s head in a major way, and more mid-budget movies are bound to follow suit, coming to fans with an open hand. You’ve probably already noticed an uptick in friends hitting you up for their own Kickstarters, hoping you’ll donate to make their hoped-for web series/short film/debut feature a reality; is there some sort of trickle-down financing scheme catching hold, and if so, isn’t it past time that we made up some rules for this sort of lawless endeavor? Here are five rules that fund-raising filmmakers — from the lowest-budgeted auteurs to the biggest-name talents — should adopt right away.

Be transparent about where the money goes.
Whether filmmakers are asking you for $2,000 or $2 million, they need to be up front about what they’re planning to do with the money they earn. Are backers helping to pay for sets and special effects … or are you simply padding your friend’s wallet with extra cash? If you’re donating to a big star’s indie film, is there an actual budget breakdown … or is the goal just a pie-in-the-sky figure that they’ve haphazardly guesstimated? Too often, the filmmakers are vague about what they’ll actually be needing the money for, and when they can’t be truthful with you, it’s easy to assume that they don’t have their shit together — or worse, that they’re keeping something essential and damning out of their pitch.

That’s a lesson Braff learned the hard way in the last ten days of his Kickstarter campaign, when the Hollywood Reporter breathlessly divulged that he had just landed a sizable amount of his budget from Worldview Entertainment, a leading film financier. There’s no harm in that play since Worldview is a major investment company that lends crucial money toward auteur-driven indies, but the optics looked bad: Braff had made a plaintive plea to Kickstarter that claimed good financiers were hard to come by, but at the same time he was wooing Worldview to finance a high-profile follow-up to Garden State with a big-name cast including Braff, Kate Hudson, Anna Kendrick, and Jim Parsons. If he’d simply said up front that he planned to secure some extra financing — and that the passion from his fans could help boost that figure — he could have ameliorated the inevitable bad buzz.

Your offer to play an extra is not a reward.
On a film set, extras are paid very little and are treated like even less, and yet so many high-profile Kickstarter campaigns expect you to pay through the nose for the putative privilege of working as a “background artist.” Rob Thomas demanded $2500 for the Veronica Mars movie’s “Be an Extra” reward, though backers had to provide their own airfare and accommodations, and Thomas said that he “can’t promise every extra will make the final cut.” Girls star Zosia Mamet is charging even more to be an extra in the music video for her folk-music duo: a whopping, overblown $7000. (So far, no takers.)

Being an extra isn’t fun! You get yelled at all day by assistant directors and you’re forced to make conversation with other extras, who are uniformly comprised of the weirdest idiots in Los Angeles. This isn’t a reward, it’s a punishment — and it’s one they should pay you for, instead of the other way around. Let’s please retire this condescending “incentive” right away.

Tell us what your own financial stake is.
It’s one of the dirty little secrets of film financing: Movie stars will talk a good game about their indie passion projects, but they won’t throw a dime of their own toward making them happen. There are rare exceptions — Steven Soderbergh and Channing Tatum invested their own money in Magic Mike, for example, and have reaped a windfall since — but for the most part, actors are content to spend their personal largesse on homes, clothes, trips, and cars while leaving it to outside financiers to make their movies.

It’s fair, then, for fans to be skeptical when big-name stars like Bell and Braff go begging: When you rake in syndication money and five- to six-figure episodes fees, can’t you afford to finance these projects on your own? Braff claims to be contributing “an ass-ton” of his own money to Wish I Was Here, but he won’t say how much — an awfully cagey move, considering his project is built on production diaries and confessional access to the filmmaker. Is he worried that if he divulged the amount he can afford to give, poorer people would be less inclined to donate? No one has forgotten that Braff is a millionaire many times over — in the wake of his Kickstarter announcement, a year-old New York article about Braff’s expensive Manhattan apartment suddenly enjoyed a surge of traffic on our website — so why not cop to it and defuse it ahead of time?

It’s the same when one of your friends hits you up for a contribution to his web series. You’re willing to give some cash, but doesn’t it feel a little bit tacky if the filmmaker isn’t spending any of his own money and relying solely on yours? When he’s asking for donations, he needs to clearly convey that he’s going to scrimp and save himself: If his Facebook wall juxtaposes Kickstarter pleas with Instagrams from his recent vacation to Bali, there’s a little bit of a disconnect.

Offer specific rewards that matter.
Thomas may have misstepped with that featured-extra reward, but one of the reasons that the Veronica Mars movie set a Kickstarter record (and nearly doubled Braff’s gross on the site) is that he offered so many other personalized gifts. Once you start pledging over $150 to the Mars movie, you’ll get autographed head shots from cast heartthrob Jason Dohring and outgoing-voice-mail messages from Kristen Bell, customized to your liking. That’s not a bad deal! More importantly, those are rewards that can come quickly; too often, filmmakers will promise incentives like T-shirts and DVDs that they’re in no position to furnish in a timely manner.

Smaller-scale Kickstarter projects can’t provide that level of glitz and glamour, and they shouldn’t pretend to. If your no-name friend hits you up for her Kickstarter and one of the high-level rewards is “Have lunch with the filmmaker” … well, is there really anybody donating to this project that couldn’t already dine with the filmmaker for the cost of a Caesar salad? The onus is on the directors to come up with something nifty for the donors to earn, whether that’s a mix CD, a pretty portrait, a producer’s credit, or something else that feels like an apropos reward.

Don’t guilt trip your fans (and friends).
Everyone’s least favorite NPR week is when the pledge drive comes around, and Kickstarter filmmakers would be wise to heed that warning. It’s one thing to keep genially nudging friends and family to donate … it’s another thing entirely when they demand that you post their Kickstarter on your wall, or when they write up a daily list of tagged donors clearly intended to shame you into following suit.

That holds true for higher-level helmers, too. I’m reminded of one of this year’s Best Foreign Film nominees No, in which Gael Garcia Bernal plays an advertising executive drafted by the opposition side in 1988 Chile to dethrone General Augusto Pinochet. His cohorts want to spend their valuable television advertising time showcasing tanks, murders, and other atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime … meanwhile, Bernal’s character successfully argues that to win people to their side, they need to instead present an uplifting, hopeful message. Listen to the man: Pathetic, despairing Kickstarters aren’t pretty. Filmmakers who exaggerate their inability to find financing are inadvertently fanning the fame of failure around their projects; meanwhile, directors who make a savvy, confident, truthful pitch rake in the money. Get us excited, not enervated: If you can move us in a five-minute Kickstarter pitch, we can’t help but imagine all you could accomplish in a two-hour movie. (And don’t you dare take ten minutes to tell us.) Good luck!

Kickstarter Etiquette: Five Major Rules to Learn